World Building (17): On Tysfan

The mightiest city in the world, home to almost a million souls, the great Tysfan has been the capital of Haranshar for almost three centuries. It is accounted one of the most beautiful and graceful cities in the world, a true marvel. The airs there are sweet and fresh, the gardens as verdant as anyone could wish, and the streets are marvelously clean. It is thus a fitting capital for the greatest superpower on the continent.

It was founded by the powerful Shah Kavastar, who wished, after a century of almost constant strife and the rise of over a dozen different shahs, to restore stability to a nation that seemed on the brink of collapse. While the site he chose was not in the center of the vast domains that he ruled–something that caused his advisers to fret–it was nevertheless a symbolic gesture. By situating Tysfan in the rough middle region of the continent of Aridikh as a whole, he hoped to send the message that he was determined to bring the rebellious lands of the Imperium under the control of Haranshar once more.

Though he did not succeed, his imperial patronage ensured that the city grew quickly, and within the first twenty years of its existence it had utterly overtaken any of the other cities in Haranshar. And, though those in the Imperium would be loathe to say it, it has also become recognized in the West as the chief seat of learning, one of the few places where a substantial number of texts from the period after the dominance of the Old Ones can be found.

The city is formed roughly of a grid, given that the Shah had been inspired by the very regular and orderly cities he had heard described by a certain adventurer who had made his way to the island of the Anukathi. It is also well-drained, and has led the way in ensuring that all buildings in the city possess indoor plumbing. As a result, disease is relatively uncommon, except in the poorer districts, and even the poorest of the city are guaranteed a daily dole of bread, and there are other measures in the city that keep them peaceful (for the most part).

There are three architectural wonders that set the city apart from others in Haranshar (and indeed from any other cities in the continent). One is, of course, the great palace of the Shah, which rears above the flat city. With its soaring arches, its walls studded with jewels, and its great dome, it is truly a wonder of the world. No other noble family is allowed to have a palace that outshines that of the Shah, and if any leader attempts to do so, they are instantly sentenced to death and a tenth of their total wealth is appropriated by the crown (in addition to the offending building).

The Great Fire Temple of Ormazdh is one of the city’s other architectural wonders. Those who visit it report being overcome with the power of the spirit that is present there, as if the great god himself had stepped into the midst of lived reality. Though it is not the holiest site for the faith–that honour belongs to another fire temple in the north–it is nevertheless the bureaucratic center of the vast Ormazdh priesthood and the seat of its foremost rulers.

The third major location in the city of the Great Library. It is here that the most ancient wisdom from ages past is stored. No location in the Imperium, even in the vaunted Peninsula, can compare to its holdings. There are books here that have been forgotten almost everywhere else in the world, including a few precious pages that date from the time of the Old Ones themselves (though, so far, they remain largely untranslated). Even sages from the Imperium are known to travel to partake in the great holdings of the Library.

The city serves as the ceremonial, political, and religious center of the entire empire, and it is the responsibility of the various great families in the realms to send representatives at least once a year.

Tysfan is notable for two other features. The first is a prominent community of Yeshurites, who are a mixture of Korrayin and others who have converted to the faith. This group is responsible for the collection of the great books of that faith, and this community of elders is acknowledged as the spiritually superior to anything in Korray (though that is hotly disputed by some). The other is a community of those who call themselves the Church of the East but are roundly and heatedly condemned by those in the West as nothing more than the worst sorts of heretics. They are seen by many in Haranshar as a potential source of unrest, as well as a potential weapon against those in the West.

This city will prove crucial in the great battles to come.

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Film Review: “Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

For me, a new Star Wars film is always a cause for celebration. I would consider myself a casual fan, someone who both takes pleasure in the franchise and recognizes its tremendous cultural impact and value as a text worthy of examination. While I was happy with The Force Awakens, to my mind The Last Jedi is like a breath of fresh air, taking the series in some new and very interesting directions.

Picking up where the previous film left off, The Last Jedi continues detailing the struggles of the Resistance, recently decimated and on the run from the First Order. In this film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to return from self-imposed exile to help his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the other resistance leaders. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows increasingly frustrated with the seeming complacency of the Resistance, particularly when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over after Leia is seriously injured. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on an effort to break the tracking device the First Order is using against the Resistance.

In its thematic concerns, Last Jedi carries on from the first film in the new trilogy. The First Order is ascendant, and throughout the film the Resistance trembles on the brink of utter collapse. The pacing accentuates this, as we are constantly led to sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for the dreadful final bomb that will wipe our heroes from the galaxy. Of course, the narrative tension is supplemented by the action-cinema aesthetics, the numerous explosions, whip-crack camera movements, and bodies in perpetual motion. Through this narrative, cinematographic, and editing patterns, the film leads us to feel how imperiled the Resistance is, how all it will take is one more death, one more catastrophe, and the First Order will succeed in rebuilding the totalitarian state.

These patterns are undergirded by universally excellent performances, and I continue to be totally on board with the increasing diversity on display in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly Marie Tran is the film’s breakout star, and her fierce portrayal of Rose Tico is both off-beat and touching.

Though she is only on screen for a very few scenes, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is also one of the film’s great stars. Dern has always managed to capture a peculiar mix of strength and vulnerability, and she brings that to bear in this role. Though our perception of Holdo is largely skewed by the perception of Poe, who thinks that she lacks the initiative to help the Resistance survive, her ultimate sacrifice was one of the film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments. As with any great movie about resistance against tyranny, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there can be no victory without sacrifice.

On the “evil” side of things, Adam Driver continues to blow me away as Kylo Ren. This would be the easiest sort of role to do badly, in that he is essentially a spoiled man-child who thinks that the universe should bend to his will. Driver, however, makes the most of his own gifts to endow this character with a certain tortured beauty. Somehow, Driver manages to be both graceful and awkward at the same time, a tension that perfectly captures Ren’s profound inner conflict. He feels abandoned by everyone who he thought cared about him, and this has become key to his ruthless drive to bring the galaxy into order.

This reflects Rey’s own inner turmoil but, unlike him, she turns away (for the moment) from both the dark side represented by Kylo and the isolationism represented by Luke. Though she was similarly abandoned by her parents–whoever they are–she has given herself completely to the Resistance, and she recognizes, in a way Kylo does not, that attempting to force an order on the universe will only replicate the cycle of chaos and destruction.

What I’ve always loved about the Star Wars universe is that it tackles the pressing philosophical questions of our time. Is it really so bad to have a world that is firmly ordered in order to curtail the dangers of contingency and chance (as Kylo wants)? Is there value in the sort of exclusionary religion practiced by the Jedi, one that relies on genealogy and a select priesthood? (A friend of mine referred to this film as the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars universe, and it’s an apt metaphor). The film has a philosophical heart, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in an action/science fiction/space opera film.

Though it risks finding resonance everywhere (as a friend recently pointed out to me), it seems to my eyes that the recent spate of Star Wars films has intervened in our contemporary moment. With the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and toxic masculinity in full flood, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, of wanting to just put your head down and hope that you survive. The Last Jedi, however, tells us that this is the way of the defeated, and that if we accept the brutality than we are complicit in the destruction of both ourselves and what we love. We must fight with every breath of our being, even though it is sometimes exhausting to do so (and even though it looks as if we might lose anyway).

This resonances stems in part from Carrie Fisher, who continues to exude a frail but resilient strength as an aging Leia. It was hard not to tear up every time she came on the screen, exuding her force of will and speaking in that faintly hoarse, slightly whispery way that is a hallmark of her recent performances. This is a woman who seems to know that she is fighting a rising tide but is determined to go down fighting.

In the end, The Last Jedi does give us hope that, even in the midst of great darkness we can still find the resilience and the strength to go on. And in these dark days, that’s a very heartening thought, indeed.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water” (2017) and Subversive Desire

Spoilers Ahead

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work ever since I saw Pan’s Labyrinth as an undergraduate. Though I haven’t kept up with him as much as I should have, I decided that, when The Shape of Water came out, I was going to go see it. After all, it was set in the Cold War, and was clearly an homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of that era’s most iconic horror films.

I was not disappointed.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is essentially the story of how Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature dragged back from the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Secondarily, the film also deals with the personal lives of Eliza’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As its base, the film is very much about the power of desire to liberate us from the shackles of bourgeois society and its ability to drain the joy from life. In that sense, it’s no accident that the film is set during the Cold War, that most perilous and oppressive of eras, when desire had not only social but grave political consequences. The film rips away the traditional (and irritatingly long-lived) cultural mythology that paints the period as one of dutiful wives and manly husbands, showing us the darker side of this ideology. Shannon’s Strickland is a Cold Warrior of the worst type, his mouth compressed into a grim line, his face bearing the grim imprint of his own pathological repression.

For Eliza, the power of desire lies in its ability to connect her to a being that may not be fully human (though the film also asks us to think about what that designation means). Unlike everyone else in her world, who sees her as just slightly less than human because of her muteness, the creature embraces her difference, desire providing the bridge between them. Indeed, desire in this film seems to exist in space beyond language, a challenge to the limits and the walls that we erect around ourselves.

There is, then, an irony in the title. For just as water always threatens to spill out of its bounds–it is fluid, after all–so desire always threatens to subvert the containers that we erect to contain and channel it. Though some might recoil at the idea that a human woman could find romantic (and sexual!) fulfillment with a man of another species, the film seems to take this particular fact in stride. It feels perfectly natural that Eliza should at last find her happiness with a creature that is as much a victim of the ruthless Cold War ethos as he is the characters’ anthropocentrism.

The Shape of Water repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of erecting walls around how we are supposed to feel, while also shedding a piercing light on the violence and hypocrisy undergirding Cold War America. From Strickland’s rotting fingers (they are bitten off by the creature but sewn back on and rejected by his body) to the empty friendliness of a pie shop clerk who spurns Giles’ advances (as well as a black couple that come in for a piece of pie), this is a Cold War America revealed in all of its artificial brutality. In this world, difference is to be shunned or destroyed and justice, peace, and beauty are (seemingly) doomed.

In the end, though, The Shape of Water is an optimistic film, and it is determined to see beauty and love win out in the end. It’s this sentiment, trite as it may sound, that makes this such a resonant film in our current world. While it’s sometimes very easy to lose sight of the pleasures of desire and the sheer joy of love, this film shows us what that can feel like. It may not be del Toro’s most adventurous film–though it is lovingly crafted, with some exquisite play with shades of green and blue–it is arguably one of his most optimistic.

As a completely useless (I think) aside: I really appreciated the brief snippets of the epic film The Story of Ruth, which I’ve always felt was a vastly unappreciated epic film (and one of the only ones in the latter part of the postwar cycle that actually focused on a woman). It is worth pointing out, though, that reviews of the time particularly praised Elana Eden’s portrayal of the biblical character for its dignity, restraint, and strength, so in that sense the film does serve as a fitting reference point for Hawkins’s Eliza.

All in all, a truly fine film.

World Building (16): The Xhusts of Haranshar

Haranshar is a vast realm. In terms of size, it’s roughly the size of Asia, though perhaps slightly smaller. As a result, it encompasses a wide range of cultures, religions, and peoples, though they all obey theoretical allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith.

The administrative heart of this mighty empire is the xhust of Hamarkahn, which takes up most of the western part of Haranshar. It is here, on the banks of the River Fagrish, that the great city of the shahs has grown up, splendid Tysphan (sometimes spelled Tysfan or Tysvan by those in the west). It was founded by the mighty Shah Kavastar, roughly 300 years before the time of the novel. It is without question the largest city on the continent of Aridikh, and it is also the most cosmopolitan. Almost all of the great religions of the world can be found there, as well as libraries, gardens, hospitals, and academies.

This xhust is also the location of Kheldylon, one of the jewels of the entire land of Haranshar, fabled for its magnificent gardens (the origins of which are said to lie in the reign of the Old Ones). To the north of this province is located Karshasp, one of the great fire temples of the Ormazdhites.

To the north and east is the xhust of Shakastan. It is a tundra-like landscape, though there are also several mountain ranges, which are the haunt of some of the fiercest warriors of Haranshar. There are relatively few major cities in the district, though Maraakh is one such. It is the home of one of the great families of the empire, who rule it as their own fief. The region is also known or its vast mineral wealth, which renders it both a very valuable commodity for Haranshar, as well as a possible source of trouble should any of their rulers decide to rebel. It is also, paradoxically, the site where it is believed that the great prophet Varagh received the illuminating word of Ormazdh.

The southern reaches comprise Pishapur, the highlands that are the traditional home of the reigning Haransharin. It is here that centuries ago, this seemingly disunited and fractious people united under their leader Xharyush and swept both east and west to conquer all before them. Within less than a decade, the entire continent would recognize his suzerainty. As a result, this province has frequently been paid more attention by the Shahs, and they have founded several major cities here.

The far eastern xhust is the wildest part of Haranshar, as well as the part that has least seen the power of the Shah. Only one of the Nine Great Clans hails from this region, and even their writ is restricted to the western edges of the district. The rest is a vast grassland inhabited by feuding tribes and chieftains. Though they supposedly have sworn allegiance to the Shah and to the Ormazdh faith, the reality is very different, as most of them follow their own chieftains and worship their own gods. They are notoriously bloodthirsty and willing to attack any who come to their territory.

A vast mountain range separates the steppes and the desert from the relatively rich coastlands that are inhabited by a very strange people. No one knows much about them, and they have only rarely sent ambassadors or representatives to the court of the Shah. It is known, however, that they guard, fiercely, a treasure, though it is not known what it is.

Technically, the kingdom of Ashkum is administered as part of this far eastern xhust, but the reality is that the rule of the Haransharin there is quite tenuous. In fact, it was only within the last fifty years that they were forced to officially swear obeisance. Even now, their powerful ruler the Kidakaia foments rebellion, aiming to bring her people out from under the yoke of bondage and into a new era.

At the time that the novels are set, the Nine Great Families of Haranshar–not all of whom are pure Haransharin–have begun to foment rebellion and anger in the xhusts. The generals are restless, and the people are yearning for something more. It just might be that a young renegade cleric from the Imperium will be the spark to the tinder.

Hot Take: How the Democrats Can Win Big in 2018 (and Maybe 2020)–“Dignity”

 

In his opinion for the majority in the case Obergefell v. Hodges, Anthony Kennedy wrote of those seeking the right to marry: “They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.” One word stands out to me about this opinion: “dignity.”

It’s no secret that the famously moderate Kennedy tends to place a lot of emphasis on dignity in his rulings, so his mention of it in the Obergefell decision is unsurprising. What might surprise some, however, is my belief that this term, “dignity,” might be the key to the future of the Democratic Party.

As the Trump era has unfolded–leading to ever-greater indignities, both large and small, the demolition of norms and institutions, and the general degrading of the office of the Presidency–it seems to me that there is one sure way that we Democrats can sell a vision to the American people. If Trump traded on easy solutions, finger-pointing, and xenophobia, it is up to us to show the American people that there is another way to conduct policy and, just as importantly, another way to comport ourselves as a republic and as a body politic.

The beauty of a stress on dignity is that it provides a way of addressing, meaningfully, in my view, the concerns of those who have in recent months suggested that the focus of the national party on “social issues” poses a danger to Democrats in traditionally conservative or moderate districts. Leaving aside the arbitrary and misleading distinction between economic and social issues (a subject for a later rant, I’m sure), it seems to me that it would be more effective and moral for Democrats in those areas to stress that their stances on LGBT+, racial, and gender issues are, essentially, about dignity. I would proffer that the majority of Americans, whether they fall to the right or the left of the political center, can at least agree on the fundamental right to dignity before the law.

Of course, this will require Democratic politicians to actually assert leadership, rather than simply acquiescing to the wishes and desires–no matter how destructive and backward they are–of their core constituents. There is a certain tendency among Democrats, particularly those who are vulnerable in states that Trump won, to think that any stance of theirs that is opposite to their conservative majority constituency will jeopardize their seat, and maybe they’re right. But it also occurs to me that people like Senator Joe Manchin (from my own home state of West Virginia) would do well to remember that there are many LGBT+ people in his state who crave the same dignity as their hetero kin. Their lives are just as important, their needs just as great, and their right to dignity as constitutional.

To some, this emphasis on dignity might come off as trite, or as respectability politics, and that’s true to an extent. However, if 2016 and its dreadful aftermath have taught us anything, it’s that we have a long, hard battle ahead of us, and we need to use all of the weapons in our arsenal. Maybe I’m naïve, but I like to think that the majority of Americans are decent folk, people who are willing to change and adapt. They’re not perfect, but with some notable exceptions they understand dignity and its importance, indeed its necessity, for emotional well-being.

Dignity, as a concept that (almost) everyone can sympathize with and embrace, may just give we Democrats a way out of the wilderness.

World Building (15): The Duchy of Ioliérs

Historically, the Duchy of Ioliérs has existed in a somewhat contentious relationship with its neighbors to the west over the Pireña. There are a few territories that straddle this natural boundary that both countries lay claim to, and there have been a few border wars that have escalated to the point that the Imperators have had to intervene.

Economically, the duchy is known for its wines and for its mines (located in the mountains). A cluster of blood-red grapes are in fact the sigil of the current reigning ducal House d’Vais.

The duchy is the site of several significant cathedrals and other holy sites in the history of the True Faith, and the Church’s presence is particularly strong here. However, the Deacons of this region have also been known to indulge in some practices and beliefs that dance along the edge of heresy, and for this reason the Council of Prelates has kept a very close eye on them. The universities, however, have been responsible for some of the most learned interpretations of the holy books, as well as significant discoveries in terms of philosophy, science, and agriculture.

As was the case with many of the other duchies, there once existed a powerful local nobility and people, known as the Rikarians, a largely-tribal people who had resisted the efforts of their Haransharin overlords to keep them in line. They largely continued to worship their own deities. While there had been some contact between these people and the powerful duchy of Alusium in the south (which even before the uprising that led to the forming of the Imperium had been exerting influence), for the most part they remained stubbornly out of tune with the rest of the other countries that would become the Imperium.

When the first Imperators solidified their power in the region by marrying their daughter Irene to one of the many local dynasties, she served as a bridge between the hybridized Alusine/Helleneian culture of her parents and the local culture of the Rikarians. So beloved was she that she would become almost a goddess among the common people and, despite the strict ban of the increasingly powerful Church on the veneration of anyone who was not formally recognized as a saint, she has remained a pervasive presence to this day.

The fusion of these two cultural traditions, combined with the relative peace and prosperity of the region, has given birth to a place where beauty, love, and the arts are the highest aspirations. For the Rikarians, despite their quarrels with one another, possessed a poetic soul, and their tales were filled with stories of chivalry, courtly romance, and the sweet things of life. This melded easily with the deliberate (and sometimes) cold approach to such things favoured by the newly-arrived Helleneian and Alusine noble class. The rash of intermarriages that occurred, not just among the upper classes but throughout the culture, ensured that within a few generations the process was largely complete.

The current Duchess of Ioliérs is one Blanche d’Vais. As one of the blood royal, she claims a seat on the highest tear of the Senate of Nobles. She has so far proven to be one of Talinissia’s more supportive allies in the Senate, though in recent years she has withdrawn to her own estates in her duchy to be with her grandchildren. She has five children, three sons and two daughters. (She maintains a very large network of spies and informants in both the capital and elsewhere, however). Her heir is Lord Imael, who has so far shown that he is content to rule his domains and not interfere with Imperial matters more than necessary.

Blanche d’Vais is also well known for her support of the Academy in Aionis as well as the one located in her own capital of Viente, and she has long been rumoured to be particularly enamoured of the more arcane branches of knowledge that are typically considered out of bounds for one of her station. In the more sinister whisperings, she is even supposed to have engaged in the forbidden dark arts of blood sacrifice, particularly as these might grant her the youth that seems to be slipping away from her (at the time of the events of the series she is nearly 70).

In terms of historical analogues in our own world, Ioliérs is similar to the courts of Navarre and of the courts of love in Aquitaine.

Queer Classics: The Agony and the Ecstasy of “Call Me By Your Name” (2017)

Warning. Spoilers for the film follow.

Call Me By Your Name opens with a series of snapshots of statues from antiquity, emblems of beauty, desire, and a world lost to the vicissitudes of time. About midway through the film, the main character Elio’s father refers to these statues, arguing that they dare us to desire, their faintly contorted forms contending with the perils of physicality.

In a similar way, Call Me By Your Name dares us to desire, to give ourselves up to the complicated, messy, infuriating yet delicious confusion of lust, love, and longing.

Set in the early 1980s in the north of Italy, the film follows young 17-year-old (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer), a graduate student, as they contend with their burgeoning feelings for one another. Their friendship blossoms into an intense physical and emotional connection, before Oliver must return to the United States, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind.

In some ways, the film’s narrative reminds me more than a little of the tragic romance between the Roman Emperor Hadrian and the youth Antinoös. It’s more than just the age difference–though that’s part of it. It’s about the aching beauty of youth, about the awareness that the passion that begins any relationship is doomed to cool in the fires of time. If you’ve ever read the heart-wrenching Memoirs of Hadrian, you’ll know what I mean.

The performances are…exquisite. There’s really no other word for it. Hammer has that sort of effortless male handsomeness that one associates with classic Hollywood, but it is his effortlessly masculine voice that truly stirs the loins. There’s just something deeply erotic about the richness of it, a deep purr that also reminds me of the best voices of classic Hollywood actors (I’m thinking in particular of Gregory Peck). I will say, though, that his character Oliver remains something of an enigma. We don’t really get to know him in the same way Elio,

For his part, Timothée Chalamet shines as Elio. He possesses the same sort of elusive beauty as the statues that his father so lovingly excavates. Several times, the camera catches him in profile, and I couldn’t help but notice that he bore a striking resemblance to those same ancient statues. Maybe it’s the turn of the nose, or perhaps it’s just the slightly elfin cast to his features. I’m not quite sure.

And, also like those statues, Chalamet manages to convey the gangly, tormented physicality of a teenage boy in hopeless love. There’s a certain anguish that Chalamet captures, both in his simultaneously graceful and awkward physical comportment as well as his ability to convey Elio’s uncertainty about his feelings for the golden-haired Oliver. The first half of the film sees the two of them existing in an uneasy tension, neither quite able to express openly the way they clearly feel about one another.

When they finally do consummate their affection, the camera is rather shy, not showing the details but leaving us in no doubt as to what is happening. In keeping the lovemaking away from the gaze, the film dares us to experience the erotic without the messy trappings of the prurient. The physically intimate relationship the two clearly share is conveyed in other, arguably more meaningful ways: through a gentle touch of a leg, the touching of one foot upon the other, a tender yet passionate kiss.

But, just as the statues of antiquity, for all their beauty, remain fragmented, beaten down and broken apart by the vicissitudes of time, so the romance between Elio and Oliver must contend with the fact that it will always be limited by their time together. Theirs is a connection doomed to flower and then instantly begin to fade, mirroring the exquisite fruits that so often appear on the table.

And that, to me, seems to be the film’s central interest. For as much as Elio is in the midst of his beautiful youth and as profound as this relationship with Oliver has been, time will inevitably wear away the hard edges of it. That romance, like all things, will fall victim to the vicissitudes of memory. And, for the film, it also falls victim to Oliver, who eventually departs, leaving a heartbroken Elio behind in Italy. When he calls his mother and asks her to come and get him, the heartbreak feels real and even now, a few days after I’ve seen the film, I still feel that gut-punch of the end of a romance.

Fortunately for Elio, his father (played by a scene-stealing Michael Stuhlbarg) is a man of infinite wit and wisdom. In a heart-warming (and wrenching) talk with his son, he reminds him that he shouldn’t crush the part of him that was hurt, in the hope that it will keep the pain away. Instead, he should remember the beautiful bond that he had with Oliver, recognizing that feeling is an essential part of what makes us human and what gives life its peculiar savor.

The film, like the ancient statuary with which it begins, attempts to capture an elusive, transient moment of summer. But of course, cinematic time waits for no one, and for all of the camera’s loving, lingering attention to the pleasures of the fleshly instant, it inevitably moves us forward. The summers of our life cannot be held, much as we might wish it were otherwise, and it is precisely because they are so transient that they pierce us with their intensity. We mourn the passing, even as we are in the midst of it. Call Me, more than perhaps any other film that I’ve recently seen, captures the fleeting nature of desire.

Call Me By Your Name is one of those extraordinary stories of queer love that stays with you. It’s not tragic, but it is bittersweet, and in that sense it ably captures the contradictions at the heart of so much queer love. While we have come a long way in terms of the societal acceptance of same-sex love, there are still many more mysteries to the queer heart, many of which don’t even have a name.

And yet still they call to our hearts.

World Building (14): On Aspaña

The dukedom of Aspaña is known as one of the primary agricultural regions of the Imperium. A variety of grains are grown here, including wheat, barley, and rye, as well as more exotic products such as oranges, lemons, and peaches. The pomegranate is the official sigil of the current House, Trasteceré. There are also a number of gold mines located in the eastern regions (along the mountains known as the Pireña) as well as several veins of precious iron ore. The steel produced in this region is acknowledged as some of the finest in the Imperium (and indeed on the continent of Aridikh itself). The duchy is also renowned for its horse-flesh, and the stables of the various noble families are filled with thousands of steeds. The Dukes are thus some of the wealthiest landowners and most powerful of the Great Houses.

The current Duke is one Ferdinand IV who, through his marriage to his third cousin Leonara, managed to bring together two rival claims for the dukedom. As a result, they also brought stability to a very disturbed part of the Imperium. There were some whispers of the consequences of this union, especially since there was significant unrest among both of their adherents, as well as among the Yishurim, a prominent minority and frequently subject to exploitation and abuse from the powerful True Faith majority.

The two nobles have become quite renowned for their devotion to the True Faith, and the churches and universities in their domains have become the envy of the rest of the Imperium. Outside of Aïonis and the cities on the Peninsula, no one has a better collection of the foundational texts of the Imperium than Aspaña. There are even some texts in the great Library at Tholeto that can be found nowhere else.

In addition to Tholeto (the capital), there are seven other cities that form the primary administrative districts of the duchy. They are: Nadrith, Falona, Bhaleshia, Avietha, Sagrosa, Gorvotha, and Zeville. They are ruled by both secular and spiritual authorities. There are a total of three Archdeacons in the duchy (archdeacon being a step down from the Prefects, who are the ultimate authority in the Church).

The history of Aspaña reaches back into the darkest days before the founding of the Imperium. After the destructive war of the Old Ones that brought the entire continent to a nadir, there were many wandering tribes that struggled to make some semblance of order out of the chaos and death. The Valariks were the tribe that eventually carved out a state that roughly corresponds to the present Aspaña.

Once the Imperium was founded, Nestoria, the third daughter of the first two Imperators, went westward and married into one of the chief families among the Valariks. From that union was born the current ducal house, along with its numerous subsidiaries and cadet branches.

It is important to note that, periodically, heresies will bubble up in this most devout of duchies. Indeed, some of the most pernicious of heretical movements have found a home here, due in no small part to the historic tendency of the Valarik people to subscribe to the Iorian Heresy, which proclaimed that the Name was solely female rather than a duality.

There have also been a number of damaging feuds within the ducal family, which has led to several pronounced periods of unrest. The duchy also has contentious relationships with its neighbours, and its meddling in the affairs of Busquel has been particularly resented. Ferdinand and Leonara have also begun positioning their eldest daughter to marry the son of the current duke of Porçal.

Recent events have suggested that the two nobles might be angling for a more prominent part in the rule of the Imperium. While they have long been devout and devoted supporters of Talinissia, they have always had a keen sense of which way the wind is blowing, and like all of the ducal families of the Imperium they have a longstanding yearning for the throne. They are one of the few of the Great Houses that has not yet been able to seize it.

In fact, there are even some rumours that the Duke and Duchess have established contacts with certain Prefects of the Church, particularly a young man who hails from the district outside of Tholeto. It remains to be seen what fruits will come of this dynastic wrangling.

World Building (13): The Anukathi

West of the continent of Aridikh (on which the Imperium, Korray, and Haranshar) are located, lies the great landmass known as Shumeru. This vast land is home to the people known as the Anukathi, who from time immemorial have haunted the imaginations of those living on the continent to the east.

There are many legends surrounding this mysterious people, but truth, as so often, is stranger than fiction. They are the progeny of renegade elohim who, when the various worlds were united as one, broke the law of the Name and lay with human women. When the One World was shattered by the cataclysmic clash between the Name and the Demiurge, the Anukathi were likewise scattered across dozens of worlds.

More often than not, they did not survive their encounters with their mortal cousins. It has been the good fortune of the Anukathi of this world that they have managed to maintain a presence on their continent and that the mortals who live there have largely been subservient to their wishes. As a result, they have been able to build a truly splendid and beautiful civilization, one that is the rival of any.

In large part, this is because they have been able to leverage the Art of Binding to reinforce their great architectural works with the daimons that provide the strength of aethyr, the purest and most powerful element. Given that they are, in essence, avowed enemies of the Name and all of their creations (including the daimons and the elohim), this should come as no surprise.

The Anukathi are tall and often slight of build, with coppery skin and black hair. Their eyes typically appear in some shade of green, though it is not unheard of for those in the purest bloodlines to have either brown or blue eyes. Though they are light, they are fearsome fighters, and before the establishment of the United Kingdom, they were prone to bloody wars between rival principalities and city-states.

There are roughly three castes in Anukathi society, with the priests at the top, the warriors and nobles in the middle, and the laborers and craftsmen at the bottom. The Anukathi are great admirers of tradition and stability, and thus this stratified society tends to not be very flexible. With very few exceptions, individuals are bound to stay within the caste into which they are born. While this is by nature restrictive, it means that, for several centuries, the Anukathi have enjoyed a particularly pronounced period of political and social flourishing.

They are ruled over by the High Queen Y’Narra, who rules from atop her zithurat. The other great houses of the Anukathi also remain ensconced in their zithurats, where they rule over their clients and over their districts. The Anukathi tend to be very urban-oriented, though there are numerous large estates scattered across the continent, most of which are in the hands of the great lords and landowners.

The High Queen is also the leader of the state (and only) religion, which worships the person of the Great Goddess, Ishatath, who is understood to be the font of all that is ordered, beautiful, and good in the material world. The Anukathi see the world beyond the flesh as one of frightening despair, and it is for this reason that they take every care not to succumb to wounds or fighting. Given that their elohim blood has gifted them with immortality, they are almost impervious to any kind of illness, though there is a possibility that they might be susceptible to diseases born from the continent from Aridikh. For this reason, and because of their innate distrust of mortals, any trading on their shores is strictly monitored, controlled, and disciplined.

Some native mortals can be found on the continent, though they occupy a largely subaltern position. However, the Anukathi are renowned for their sense of justice and fairness, and slavery as such is forbidden by their most sacred laws. Thus, almost every mortal is held in a form of serfdom. While they are technically free, their economic circumstances are such that they are bound to the land and to the lord.

As the events of the novel will demonstrate, there are deep currents at work in the land of the Anukathi, and it may be that their Queen has a greater destiny ahead of her than anyone thought possible.

Reading History: “The Last Tudor” (Philippa Gregory)

I’ve been reading Philippa Gregory’s books since around 2005, when I picked up The Other Boleyn Girl. I haven’t yet read all of then, but I’ve read enough to have a solid sense of her style and her interests and author, as well as her strengths and weaknesses as a writer of historical fiction.

Her most recent outing, The Last Tudor, puts Gregory’s puts all of that on display.

Broken into three parts, the book centers on the three Grey sisters: Jane, Katherine, and Mary. Jane, of course, has gone down in history as the Nine Days Queen, executed by Queen Mary as a result of her father’s foolish rebellion. Katherine, equally foolish, married a Seymour without first gaining the permission from the Queen, a crime also committed by her sister Mary, who marries a commoner and also finds herself imprisoned.

Jane, in keeping with the traditions of depicting her in historical fiction, emerges as something of a prig, convinced of her own wisdom, erudition, and piety. However, her self-assurance doesn’t keep her from being manipulated by others–notably her parents–into usurping the throne when her cousin Edward VI. Though frequently insufferable, Gregory does capture moments of genuine pathos with this quintessential Protestant martyr.

If only the same could be said of her younger sister Katherine. Though Katherine was surely a complicated and tragic character, in Gregory’s rather unsuitable hand she becomes an insufferable ninny, so swept up by her passion for the young Edward Seymour that she marries him without Queen Elizabeth’s permission, earning both of them imprisonment. As a character, she seems quite the dunce, especially as she moves from bad decision to bad decision. She can’t quite seem to wrap her head around why it might be that Elizabeth would see her as a threat, despite the fact that she constantly draws attention to the fact of her own superiority to her cousin.

It is Mary, ironically, who emerges as the most interesting and insightful character, though she also has the least to do. After her ill-considered marriage to Thomas Keyes, she is shuttled between various keepers. While her chapters are often witty and sardonic, the downside is that most of what she relates has to do with the travails of her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots. As a result, these chapters tend to drag.

All three sisters’ narrations are marred by one of Gregory’s increasingly prevalent tics: repetition. We endlessly hear about how one of the sisters might become the center of an effort to replace Elizabeth, how each of them is better than Elizabeth, how they all hate Elizabeth. I would probably have much more patience for Gregory’s consistent foibles if she didn’t have such a naked vendetta against Elizabeth I. Now, I’ll be the first to say that I’ve long been a fan of QE I, even though I recognize that she has a lot to answer for. Still, Gregory takes this to extremes, and she clearly believes that Elizabeth was responsible for the death of Robert Dudley’s wife Amy Robsart. Given that historians now agree that Elizabeth was most likely innocent, this is at best farfetched and at worst deliberately misleading.

It’s not surprising that the three Grey sisters would see their cousin the queen through their own perspective, but it does strain credulity that three members of the ruling dynasty would not be a little more canny about their life choices. Having been raised to be conscious of their royal connections through their grandmother Queen Mary, they surely would have realized that their marriages had consequences far beyond their personal happiness. What’s more, it’s quite frustrating to read them making these foolish choices, especially as, if they had been wiser and cannier about maneuvering through court politics, they might have seen their children on the throne rather than enduring years of grueling captivity.

In the last several Gregory novels, we hear incessantly about how infertile the Tudors are, how paranoid they are because of this, and how they will willingly punish (or kill) anyone who they perceive as a threat. While there is something to this, and while I am aware that Elizabeth could be quite malicious, Gregory’s lack of subtlety mars what might have been a nuanced exploration of the truly tragic fates of three interesting figures in the Tudor family.

I suppose my greatest frustration with this novel was the fact that the story could have been told better, either by Gregory or someone else. The author’s note suggests that she is moving on from the Tudor and I, for one, must reluctantly admit that this is certainly a good thing.